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To the Moon

Raising a Glass to Iowa’s Coolest Wine

By Jim Duncan

Nearly every gardener and farmer in Iowa agreed that the long, hot summer of 2012 was horrible for their crops. Not Matt Nissen.

“It was perfect weather for us. Grapes here love it when early summer is hot and dry,” says the winemaker and manager of Prairie Moon Winery and Vineyards near Ames.

Nissen was overdue for some good luck. Since he planted his first vines in 2000, he’s run into several challenges, many created by his stringent quality controls.

Prairie Moon began as an all-organic operation. After 10 years he realized that mineral oil and sulfur were no match for the relentless appetite Japanese beetles have for Iowa vines.

He still grows his grapes, 25 to 30 tons a year, in a sustainable manner.

Vines are carefully planted and trellised over 18 acres of hills and dales so that different varietals are exposed to optimum light conditions. Some are trained to grow high and others close to the ground.

Nissen covers his more tender varietals with hay in the winter to protect them against root and trunk damage.

All his grapes are hand-picked and hand-sorted. All the leftovers from pressing are returned to compost. 

Nissen is proud that all his wines are made with his own grapes. He’s particularly pleased with Winter Moon Ice Wine.

Made exclusively with Vidal Blanc grapes, Winter Moon has a deep flavor that experts have described as both “earthy” and “lychee like.”

Unlike many other dessert wines (Sauternes, Tokaji), ice wines must be made with grapes that are free of noble rot (Botrytis cinerea). That gives them what winemakers call a “clean” quality and flavor.

Their syrupy intensity is cultivated by letting the grapes freeze on the vine before harvesting, usually in late November or early December. That intensifies their sugars but requires some planning.

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